Denis the 'menace'

Activist professor Denis Rancourt today faces a disciplinary hearing where he'll have to defend his...

Activist professor Denis Rancourt today faces a disciplinary hearing where he'll have to defend his ways, which have included changing a course and assigning all his students A+ grades. (AEDAN HELMER/Sun Media)

AEDAN HELMER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

He's a thorn in the paw of the roaring lion that is the University of Ottawa.

And the lion is showing its teeth.

Denis Rancourt, the self-anointed activist teacher -- and one-time poster boy for academic achievement -- now finds himself barred from teaching by his own faculty.

The university is also taking steps to have him relieved of his duties to supervise graduate level research.

And most recently, Rancourt's "Cinema Politica" film series and discussion group was cancelled by the administration on grounds sign language interpretation for the deaf was not provided.

After 22 years as a leading researcher and popular physics professor, Rancourt is now a polarizing figure.

Some of his fellow professors call him "a menace" and an "inside agitator."

A handful support him, risking their reputations, perhaps even their tenure.

Others wish he would just go away.

Rancourt went from making waves to rocking the boat when he did away with traditional grading, awarding an A+ to every student in his so-called activism course.

Fellow professors were outraged by Rancourt's newfound "critical pedagogy" methods. Others in his faculty questioned his mental stability.

University administration came out swinging, and a battle with Rancourt ensued.

Stripped of his teaching duties, Rancourt is also facing a copyright infringement complaint for using images lifted from the school website on his controversial blogs, including activist teacher.blogspot.com and uofowatch.blogspot.com.

Today, he faces a disciplinary hearing where he will defend his position or risk suspension.

"They think I'm harming the reputation of the university," said Rancourt. "But professors do have academic freedom, and by definition that means you are entitled to criticize your employers.

"Criticism is positive in the same way that academic freedom is positive. The only way to encourage positive change is through criticism. That's the whole idea of academia."

Later this month, he will argue before the Ontario Human Rights Commission after a deaf member of the community complained about the lack of sign language access at Cinema Politica. The university's position is Rancourt should be responsible for covering the cost, since the series falls outside his scope as a physics professor. Rancourt doesn't see it that way.

And while only a handful of colleagues have stood behind the embattled professor, his latest ally is a powerful one.

Psychology professor Claude Lamontagne has 30 years experience, and was named teacher of the year in 2001 and 2002, then won the "Nobel of education," the 3M teaching fellowship, in 2003.

Last Friday, on short notice, nearly 100 students and community members packed MacDonald Hall, where Rancourt was back in the saddle with his rebranded "Cinema Academica" film series.

Lamontagne had booked the room at his own risk.

Meanwhile, administration is reserving comment.

"This was all news to us," said university spokeswoman Andree Dumulon of the reborn film-and-debate series. "This is a matter between Mr. Rancourt and the university and ... because this is before the Ontario Human Rights Commission and mediation is pending, we should try to limit our comments."

'HIT PANIC BUTTON'

But Lamontagne's own faculty is getting involved.

Hours before the first Cinema Academica session was to launch, Lamontagne received a strongly worded letter from his own dean.

"He told me that the kind of activity that goes on in that room I booked is not complementary to my teaching duties and cannot be accepted, and that he himself will undo the booking," says Lamontagne.

"I think they hit the panic button and the faculty called my department. But I've no evidence that my reputation will be compromised or that my career will be at risk."

In introducing himself to the assembly Friday, Lamontagne said he could no longer stand idly by while a colleague "was being muzzled."

"The university milieu involves first of all debate," he said. "The only way in which new knowledge is gained is through debate. It's the only way to learn, it's the only way to teach and there's not enough of it on campus, and not just here.

"Universities in Canada are going to hell in terms of collegiality and academic freedom. Professors are scared to stand up for their rights because they want tenure, and they don't want to go against the stream."

As the future of Cinema Academica hangs in the balance, Rancourt insists the show will go on.

"We'll be here again Friday," he said. "They'll have to get security to block the door to keep us out."

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RANCOUR TIMELINE

- 1987 -- Hired as a professor at age 29, under a national competition for "rising young stars."

- 1997 -- Promoted to full professor.

- 2000 -- Awarded the largest Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grant ever in the faculty of science.

- 2005 -- Inspired by physicist Jeffrey Schmidt's Disciplined Minds, Rancourt decides to practise "academic squatting," taking over and changing a pre-existing course into his "activism course," and opening it to the public.

- September 2005 -- After only one class, the dean of sciences attempts to cancel the course. Rancourt files and later wins a grievance.

- September 2006 -- New activism course launches with 500 in attendance for first class, featuring Afghanistan MP Malaila Joya.

- Fall 2006 -- 10-year-old twins Sebastien and Douglas Foster are expelled after registering in the activism course. Both file Ontario Human Rights Commission complaints.

- Winter 2007 -- Rancourt is disciplined for assigning A+ grades to all his students. He is later pulled from all first-year classes.

- Spring 2007 -- Starts a controversial blog called UofO Watch, earning threats of lawsuits and further discipline.

- Summer 2008 -- University cancels Rancour's Cinema Politica film series after a human rights complaint over lack of access to deaf members.

- June 2008 -- Arbitrator sides with Rancourt, setting a precedent for academic freedom.

- August 2008 -- Rancourt is pulled from all teaching.

- Sept. 5, 2008 -- Cinema Politica is launched for its seventh season, this time under the banner Cinema Academica.

- Today -- Rancourt is scheduled to appear before university's executive of the board of governors to defend use of copyrighted university images on his own UofO Watch blog.

- Sept. 24 -- Rancourt scheduled to appear before Ontario Human Rights Commission to defend his position over access to the deaf for Cinema Politica screenings.


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